Mr Lyward's Answer
by Michael Burn
The story of George Lyward and Finchden Manor
First published 1956 by Hamish Hamilton Ltd - All Rights Reserved
Abridged for the World Wide Web
I HAVE chosen to tell the story
of Alastair Wilton in full for two reasons: first, because it illumes
a relationship between boy, Mr Lyward and parent - in this instance
the mother; secondly, because Mrs Wilton had many feelings which a majority
of parents - and possibly educational authorities - naturally shared
about Finchden. She stated them vigorously and at length, before her
son went, while he was there, and later, when she decided he ought to
leave. The doubts and recurring anxieties, which might be felt by any
mother or father faced with the same problem, were put with particular
force by Mrs Wilton.
Alastair Wilton went to Finchden three years before the war. He came of well-to-do parents. His father, who had been a naval officer, was dead. His mother loved the boy, her only son, deeply, but had spoilt him. She was a Scotswoman and lived near the Border with Alastair and his sister. The sister was several years older than the boy, and of a vigorous and dominating character. Alastair often dreamed of Victorian surroundings. Mrs Wilton had many of the solid characteristics of that period, and when people spoke of her I thought at first of Queen Victoria. She was small and sturdy. Her letters were seldom fewer than four pages long, with strong underlinings; ‘must’ was a favourite word. But she was not stuffy. She had vivacity and vitality, loved to fill her house with young people, and gave hilarious parties at Christmas, at one of which she dressed up as the old Queen.
She had firm religious faith and went regularly to church, but did not insist that her son should go. She had high ideals and definite standards of right and wrong and did many kindnesses to many people. Much that she said or wrote sounded excellent; in relation to he son some had proved mistaken. The inflexible side of her character was softened by an endearing honesty; at a fairly advanced age she could admit and adapt herself to unfamiliar ideas and even reveal her vulnerable real self. Consequently one ends her story with admiration and sympathy.
Her spoiling of her son had been in part brought about by a serious illness of his. One boy at his school had died. He had nearly died and this crisis had affected both mother and son deeply. Alastair had already begun to play upon her at his preparatory school, begging her to take him home. During his first term at a public school he caused such commotion that he had to be taken away and handed over to a tutor, Mr Greenacre. At the end of the holiday Mr Greenacre took him back, but the boy ‘worked himself into so hysterical a condition that neither housemaster nor school doctor (wrote Mrs Wilton) would consent to his remaining at College. His present firm intention is never to return to any school, large or small.’ Whenever return was suggested, he threatened suicide or chewed playing cards. ‘He is dominating the situation at home,’ wrote a psychiatrist to the family doctor, ‘and being extremely difficult and unpleasant. He clearly needs to be away from home with someone much stronger than Mr Greenacre, and there are many other problems. He is primarily hysteric. … I am not sure whether you know Mr Lyward of Finchden Manor, Tenterden. I have great confidence in his capacity to handle difficult situations …’
A few days later, Mrs Wilton paid her first visit to Finchden. She took to Mr Lyward, but (and there were to be many ‘buts’), ‘we are a rather critical and observant family. What perplexes me most is the effect his surroundings and above all the other boys will have on Alastair. They struck me as having been, or being, far more nervously ill and less normal to all superficial appearances than he is. I recognize that there are serious things wrong with Alastair’s outlook on life. Probably that’s the case with all of us (I mean most of us); but whether he would not feel – “Good heavens, they must think things pretty wrong with me if I’m sent among boys like that!” – and what effect this might have on him, I don’t know.’
Mr Lyward answered: ‘I sympathize with you because it must be a difficult decision to make. The simplest answer I can give s that I have seen many parents grappling with the same problem and making the same criticisms, and finally months later expressing their gratitude and satisfaction that they had accepted this place as a whole and not in part. It would be comparatively easy to run a place which would appeal to visiting parents, but would not inevitably help the boys. … I could put you on to many parents who would assure you, but I would rather you made a venture of faith.’
This skirmish recurs at the beginning of many of the boys’ stories. Other parents were doubtful about untidiness or bad language or absence of curriculum. Mr Lyward wished them to accept Finchden as an ‘act of faith’. But once or twice, if he felt that the parent was likely to be more than usually upset by appearances, in the boy’s interest he made an exception and deliberately set the stage. In preparation for Mrs Wilton’s second visit, he sent for a dozen boys of Alastair’s age, all from public schools, and asked them to arrange a formal tea. He explained that he had never done such a thing before; there was now a reason. … ‘The mother is genuinely puzzled, and you can’t blame her.’
So the furniture was polished, and the tea laid on a table with a white
cloth. Mrs Wilton arrived with Alastair and his sister, to be met by
a gathering of tidy boys in their good suits, with clean nails and smarmed-down
Mr Lyward answered; and thus a correspondence was fully launched which was to continue almost weekly for five years. (With Alastair himself it continues to this day.) ‘I am not at all sure,’ Mr Lyward wrote, ‘that you would ever be able to trust anyone or any place which has challenged you views even as kindly as we have done; and in that case we should be in the impossible position of being only nominally free to help Alastair. I must know how far you are likely to go on for ever spoiling Alastair’s chances, even should he come here. I am therefore going to suggest that you try to recognize that you have now reached a limit, past which it would be unwise to go. In other words, I must reject your suggestion of visiting here again tomorrow. It cannot do the boys here any good if you should come again so soon, or that you should so obviously question our suitability for a boy whom they recognize as like themselves. Nor would it help them if my patience was strained by parents too often past a certain point.’
I can now leave the letters to speak for themselves, commenting only where necessary. On the one hand there is Mr Lyward. At that time he had taught for nearly thirty years. His independent experience with maladjusted boys so far extended only over six years, but he had spent many more in charge of his junior house at Glenalmond. On the other hand there is the boy’s mother (or in other instances his father, or both mother and father), - unwilling, naturally suspecting the unorthodox, to trust their son by ‘act of faith’ to a total stranger. Yet all parents – in this, as in scores of other cases – felt with varying degrees of awareness and honesty of mind, that they themselves had failed somewhere and that, if they did not agree to some kind of special treatment, they might ruin their son’s life. Many, like Mrs Wilton, thought in terms of a few months’ stay. Many again thought of some slight adjustment back to ‘normal’, of some quick ‘cure’ for the original ‘offence’. Many found that the boy’s real disturbance lay far deeper than they had dreamed.
‘I am sure you must realize,’ wrote Mrs Wilton, ‘how unhappy and worrying is the slow realization that one’s child has passed more or less (no doubt largely through one’s own fault) out of one’s control and power to help. I am afraid I don’t take things on trust at all easily; partly owing to special circumstances of my own up-bringing. … A very large number of people, including my doctor, urged me to leave Alastair at his first preparatory school. I did so against all his own entreaties for three years, a course which I am sure has contributed very largely to his present unsatisfactory condition. … If Alastair comes to you, I will certainly endeavour not to “spoil his chances”, but I don’t quite know what you mean by this accusation.’
July 6, 1936
Alastair and Mr Greenacre paid a visit to Finchden, but nothing was decided. Mrs Wilton and Alastair spent their holidays with relatives in Ireland, where Alastair was ‘very sensibly sociable with other young people, both boys and girls and was quite willing to make his own plans with them if ours were too energetic for him.’ He had also begun to paint ‘and hopes for opportunity and encouragement in this creative effort when he comes to Tenterden.’
A change now appeared on the Wilton side of the correspondence. Mrs Wilton, tired of Alastair at home and anxious to do something, began to press Mr Lyward. The boy ‘will come to Finchden Manor as soon as you return from your holidays, which I hope may prove restful and enjoyable. Will you be so kind as to let us know later when you are ready to receive him?’ Alastair meanwhile began to stall; it would soon be his birthday, and Mr Greenacre had promised to help him with his paintings and to give him drawing lessons. Mrs Wilton wrote to Mr Lyward again: ‘I sometimes feel that some step or sign from you at this juncture would be of great help. I and my daughter are the only source of pressure on Alastair to come to you.’ A week later Mr Greenacre had found another pupil, and had less time for Alastair’s art. The underlinings to Mr Lyward became more frequent. ‘The time is very ripe for you to move. I think Alastair should come to you after a quiet week-end on Monday next.’
Mr Lyward was not to be hurried. He would never permit any parent to
think that he had ‘forced’ a boy to come. Alastair dashed
off several more canvases. The last letter before his enrolment at Finchden
came from the boy himself, typewritten but mis-spelt, and showing more
than a trace of hauteur:
Alastair took against Finchden at once. Of course he wrote to his mother,
and, as at his preparatory school, demanded to be removed. He gave her
a feverishly exaggerated account of the place, which, as it was meant
to, thoroughly upset her. She telephoned Mr Lyward in distress, and
wrote Alastair a letter of wounded but sensible reproof. ‘I think
you are making a desperate attempt to get me under your thumb. …
I refuse to be a source of endless sympathy to your dramatized version
of yourself. You don’t give me facts in your letter. Why not?
If you are convinced of them, tell me what they are.’
‘Dear Mrs Wilton,
This letter gave Mrs Wilton ‘great hope and comfort’, which was undermined almost at once by another ‘terrible’ letter from her son. ‘He does not threaten suicide or even running away. He only begs me to see him and learn what he calls the “truth” from his own lips. If I don’t, he says he will run away from me and withdraw all confidence.’ She begged to see Alastair alone.
‘Dear Mrs Wilton, (wrote Mr Lyward)
Can you see at all from the above that the one fatal thing at the moment would be for me to respond thoughtlessly to either you plea, or his, that you should come together at this moment? If I did consent to your meeting, the maximum need for mothering and the maximum need for hurting and dominating mother would be joined. It is our job here to stand between the two forces in conflict and bear the brunt, but I would not have you in your old position ever again, and you cannot call that being unkind to you … I believe, if I wished, I could fix upon the actual time when Alastair wrote his letter to you. I was informed that when he enquired for ink he was quite cheerful.’
Alastair was quite cheerful. He had been given a private room and was allowed to furnish it himself; he asked for a fire, but this was refused. A visit to London followed, with Mr D., to buy a wireless set. ‘He assumed the part of a guide,’ Mr D. reported, ‘anxious to impress me with his knowledge of London. … He told me he knew where Selfridge’s was, namely in regent Street, and was surprised when he failed to find it. Was assured by myself and several dealers that a wireless set which would do what he wanted had not yet been designed, and probably never would be. Showed a preference for sets of flashy appearance, with an obvious lack of internal finish. Wanted to go to an expensive place for lunch. I took him to Lyons Corner House. He was rather disdainful and said that he didn’t like crowds. Suddenly said: “I suppose really it is awfully good for me to come to a place like this”. We went to a film and he proposed another visit next week. I said I might not want to come to London next week, to which he replied that he thought the present visit had been most enjoyable and successful, and that he would ask Mr Lyward to let me come again with him again. On Ashford Station, he tried to get chocolate out of the automatic machines without putting in a penny; and seeing some of the restaurant tea-cups on a ledge said: “Do you dare me to pinch some?” I said: “Please yourself”, and he took one and wanted to bring it home with him.’
Alastair was also gambling. He invited Mr D. to pay his debtors with money from the office. ‘He produced the list showing amounts owed to him – 4/6d. in respect of money-lending and 6/6d. for cigarettes. This he totaled at 10/6d. I took the list and told him the figures required digesting, as I had no authority to pay boy’s debts. He said I was prejudiced. He came to me again when I was in bed and said: “Although I dislike you exceedingly, could you tell me…?” – and asked for some technical information about his wireless set. I gave him the information, and he thanked me and went away.’
Alastair of course was not nearly as wretched as he had led his mother to suppose. He had a way of posting her emotional storms; by the time they reached her, he was sunbathing. He was cunning, sanctimonious, and often merry. In one photograph of that time he is wrestling with another boy, his face caked with mud; another photograph shows him looking like an assertive golliwog. He had taken to games, which elsewhere had terrified him, and had begun to do lessons with Mr Knox.
Mr Knox was so rugged yet gracious and versatile an eccentric that he not only justifies but demands a digression.
Mr Lyward had first met him while searching for a second-in-command. On a friend’s invitation, he had gone to a club near Pall Mall, and had been introduced to a tall, thin, stooping gentleman with a red nose and a walrus moustache, who was wearing a high stiff collar. Mr Lyward immediately said to himself ‘Impossible!’, yet before the meeting was over, it had been decided that Mr Knox should come to Finchden. He remained on the staff until his death.
He gave his age as fifty-one, but was probably 60. He came of a brilliant family and had been a classical scholar at Balliol. For years he had lived in Paris, as foreign correspondent for a big newspaper. He spoke fluent French and had the Legion d’Honneur and another French medal. He had jumped out of a window for a bet and broken both his arms below the elbow. He had written three books: one on electricity, one on engineering, one on The Soil, and arrived at Finchden with several dozen copies of Newton – The Man, foreword by Einstein, published by Mr Knox. He taught mathematics, science, French, history, English, Latin and Greek. He held formal classes, but most of his teaching was done as a running commentary on various kinds of practical work, on which he embarked as soon as he arrived.
His injury did not prevent him – sometimes alone, sometimes with the boys – building a suite of laboratories, some of which the Army left standing. He dug a well 18 feet deep at Guildables and, bending his shrivelled forearms perpendicular in front of him, carried piles of bricks and heavy blocks of cement, talking as he built and accompanying himself with quotations from Horace – which he knew almost by heart – and with tremendous French and Elizabethan oaths. In one laboratory he made soap; the first experiments burnt the table, but later he turned out a pleasantly scented brand, some of which he sold. A skilled gardener, he planted a shrubbery of lavender and rosemary, out of which he distilled lavender water. Salesmen would be engaged in rich and stately conversation about cosmetics. Every few months, packing cases arrived for Mr Knox, containing valuable equipment, which he got cheap from a scientific friend. He also erected a printing press, and while at Finchden published a small anthology and a work on ratio and proportion called The Bed of Procrustes. During the war, unable to buy graph paper, he printed his own.
The boys called him ‘The Old Boy’. They put Vim on his rice pudding, but he did not notice. In the town he was known as the Professor. He smoked about eighty cigarettes a day, and sometimes had four going at a time. As soon as he had settled in, he discarded the formal dress in which Mr Lyward had first encountered him, and wore, while building, a white coat sprinkled with cigarette ash and trousers without turn-ups, held round his middle with a piece of string. He seldom bought clothes. When he did, he sent into town the gardener’s boy, who had come to Mr Lyward for treatment, with instructions to bring back half-a-dozen suits from which Mr Knox chose one. He shaved off his moustache and substituted a beard, grizzled and stained with nicotine, which he either pruned like the late King George V or allowed to cascade to his breastbone. His fine hands were black with nicotine, his black nails like talons. When Sid – then a boy- asked why he did not cut them, Mr Knox picked up a diminutive head of type off a glass-topped table used while printing, and enquired majestically; ‘How could I do that with short nails?’
He had a wonderful twinkle in his eye, and false teeth which did not fit. When he wanted to put a cigarette to his mouth, his broken arms made necessary a superb circular movement; his teeth fell with a clack, and as he exhaled he hissed like an escaping jet. He slept little and ate little, but drank tea all hours of the day and night, out of a mug, encrusted on the outside with chemicals and printer’s ink, and blackened inside with tea leaves like an ancient pipe. Mrs Lyward once bought him a new mug; the offer was received graciously but with pain, not successfully disguised.
He had the grandest of grand manners. When asked an unwelcome question, he pretended to be deaf. He could argue his way into or out of anything. His gestures were generous and vast. He took a liking to a dog of Mr Lyward’s, gave it commands in several languages, alive and dead, and tossed it biscuits as a prize. ‘Buy seven pounds of chocolate biscuits,’ he ordered Sid. Sid bought them and Mr Knox fed them to the dog. “Could I have one?’ asked Sid. “Of course,’ said Mr Knox amazed: ‘do people eat chocolate biscuits?’
Suddenly Mr Knox would give a boy a prize of one, ten or twenty cigarettes, if the boy remembered a French idiom or a scientific formula. During the war, when tobacco was hard to come by, he lost an apparently safe bet and had to give one boy a thousand cigarettes for remembering a quotation.
He had lost touch with his family, except for one sister. Once a well-dressed
stranger came to Finchden. Mr Knox met him.
Mr Knox seldom went away from Finchden, except to have his hair cut.
When he did, standing well over six-foot, with his beard long or short,
looking like a cross between Trader Horn, father Christmas and a pillar
of the Academie Francaise, members of the public thought they surely
ought to know him. One Christmas Sid accompanied him. Mr Knox had taken
pains with his appearance. His trousers, still tied up with string,
were concealed under a long grey overcoat. His beard he wore outside.
He had on a khaki shirt, a pink tie, and a pork-pie hat bought from
one of the staff for sixpence. ‘Who is that gentleman?’
asked the railway porter.
Mr Knox traveled first class. He crouched in the window seat, brooding
over the platform. It was war-time and all the carriages were full.
A woman hurried along, complaining to the station-master. She stopped
and pointed accusingly at Mr Knox. ‘There!’ she cried, ‘People
who haven’t paid!’
Mr Knox and Sid changed at Crewe. Mr Knox’s brown shirt was hanging out. Watched by an austerity and uniformed crowd, he undid the string, tucked in the shirt and said to Sid: ‘Now we’ll have a spread.’ War-time restrictions meant nothing to him. He took a taxi and they went to the best hotel – no food. They went to the second best – again no food. ‘Never mind, young man,’ said Mr Knox to the driver, ‘take me anywhere we can get two dozen eggs!’ Even one egg was unprocurable. Time and change had passed him by. They stopped at some traffic lights. ‘What are those?’ asked Mr Knox.
He loved learning, and taught with enthusiasm and reverence. All his experiments were scrupulous and exact, all his instruments lovingly cared for. He double dug and weeded his patch of garden, laid down pipes and sprinklers, and collected cart-loads of manure. He gave the boys the feeling of history and the feeling of a language, and chuckled with delight when Sid once answered ‘Mais oui’ instead of only ‘oui’.
A photograph shows Mr Knox at the desk of his self-built laboratory. Through the window is a glimpse of another building not yet finished. The mug of tea stands in front of him. The sun is shining on the gaunt, imperious face, the grizzled hair and beard, and he looks like Ulysses in old age. He died during the war before the return to Finchden. As he was dying, Sid would come to his room and real aloud in French Dumas’ Black Tulip and The Adventures of Arsene Lupin, and Mr Knox would arouse himself from his coma to correct pronunciation. He told his sister that he had spent the best eleven years of his life at Finchden. Scruffy, civilized, lonely, brilliant, robust, he had found his haven there, and was loved, and those he taught have never forgotten him.
Mr Knox had a tolerant but not high opinion of Alastair Wilton.
Alastair continued the furnishing of his room. ‘Of course,’
Mr Lyward wrote to Mrs Wilton, ‘he tries to make me feel that
this is all a sort of bargain he has struck with you and me. I gently
waved aside the notion of bargaining – so gently, that he can
still talk in that strain to other people, i.e. I have left him with
the crutches he still needs.’
February 27, 1937
In fact Alastair was gradually drawing away from his mother; she knew that the silver cord was being loosed. His letters home became more frequent. When he did write, he asked her and his sister never to come to Finchden again, as a result, wrote Mrs Wilton, ‘of some rather tactless chaff on my part about the state of his room.’ Mr Lyward again reassured her. In December, Alastair decided to stay at Finchden Manor for Christmas. It was the first Christmas he had ever spent away from home, and his mother was hurt and sad.
About this time, Alastair decided he would like ‘to do some engineering’. Mr Knox included him in a class. Alastair’s wish for learning at that moment was insincere; as with other boys, the time had not yet come. He tried an examination and failed. In his next reports he was described as ‘showing a general joy in life. … The rougher, more virile elements are beginning to demand incorporation into the whole … and his aesthetic side is now quite pronounced.’ He was ‘ for the most part happy and very alive, but now and again he gets a fit of depression. … I have not actually discussed his depressions with him, but I consider them an important indication of a disturbance in the region of his instincts …’
Mrs Wilton wrote post-haste:
Alastair was growing, that was about all, but Mrs Wilton suggested a visit, as she had not had a talk with Mr Lyward for some time. Alastair had already been there much longer than she had expected, and showed no wish to leave. She had done her utmost for a year and a half to continue her ‘act of faith’, yet despite her feeling of respect and friendliness for Mr Lyward, she could never get over her dislike of Finchden Manor and her distrust of the other boys. She was torn between her wish to keep Alastair to herself and her delight at his visible improvement.
One afternoon she arrived.
She went home. Next day:
With his reply, Mr Lyward sent her two long poems he had written at Glenalmond many years before. ‘I send them not so much because they represent what I’ve been trying to say to you. But they may reveal to you a little that I am deeply moved by the facts of the spiritual life of which you are aware – not that I think you now look upon me as a destroyer of values. Your last letter makes me the more willing to let you see them. I dared not use them, or anything like them, to convince you earlier.’
And in another letter a few days later: ‘I admire greatly the way you have yielded to certain facts. People like you have an innate strength, which causes them to resist us forcibly – as you did at the start. The same strength enables them to share their boys’ gradual release. Others, who accept us in a superficial way, never say later that we have opened any windows for them.’
The rigidity of both Mrs Wilton and Alastair was now broken. The ice
floes were melting, and as often happened during a movement of this
kind when ‘life’s genial stream begins to flow’, there
were revulsions and hesitations and blocks, which made it seem nothing
had changed, that nothing had been freed. The conflict of dawning relief
and the old self-pity was harder for the elderly woman to bear than
for a boy. A real person was stepping off the pedestal; sometimes she
stepped back and became the marble ideal again.
About this time Alastair became extremely truculent, which (Mr Lyward wrote to Alastair’s doctor) ‘gave us a great many chances of helping him, and me many chances of useful analysis. Alastair began to show much more hostility to his mother after he senses that his mother was more with us, and we had to go very carefully in relationship to his hysterical tendencies. I would say that the hysteria is what prolongs matters so.’
Mrs Wilton found herself unable to pay for a holiday abroad, and Alastair resigned himself to not going. At about the same period Mr Lyward wrote ‘For the first time I really felt it safe to speak to him “like a father”, when to my dismay he got a letter from his sister offering him a few weeks in the South of France (for which their trustee was to pay). Rightly or wrongly, I felt I dared not say “no” at this particular juncture. It is not the first time that his sister has cut across his interests here.’
From near Antibes, Alastair wrote Mr Lyward his first really boyish
and cheerful letter, chiefly on surf-riding. The priggishness was less
marked and the typewriter had gone. He dreamed that he could not leave
Finchden, and that a torrent was carrying him away, from which he saved
himself by clinging to a crumbling rock. On his return, Mrs Wilton begged
Mr Lyward to let her have Alastair at home for at least three weeks,
so that she could hear all about France, and Alastair dreamed:
“Dear Mrs Wilton, (wrote Mr Lyward)
Alastair dreamed of his dead father, of girls at the seaside, riding horses, of rivers, and of his dislike of his sister. He dreamed of a prison guarded by nuns. Hitler occupied Prague. ‘Alastair’s fear of war (wrote Mt Lyward) was probably ad great as that of any of the boys here.’ He began to dream of being chased by Germans, of aeroplanes crashing in flames, and then of being chased by wolves. He had more dreams of quarrels with his sister and an encouraging report.
‘Alastair continues to show signs of working his way (irritably at times) through his humiliations connected with his sister. This must be very painful and for my part I am amazed by the underlying strength which enables him to go on with his contemporaries while these old feelings are being digested and dealt with inside. … He is going through a terrifically he-man phase, spending most of his time in physical activity of one sort or another.’
Suddenly, Alastair wrote a letter, hitting out at his sister. ‘From what I’ve seen of you,’ he wrote, ‘you might think you were the only person in the world who has suffered worries and unhappiness. In fact you’re just the same as everyone else, and on the whole other people make less noise about it.’ Alastair told Mr Lyward that he had sent this letter. Mr Lyward reassured Mrs Wilton, but asked that the sister should not visit Finchden. ‘She could easily hold up Alastair’s progress by interrupting the “working through” process.’
‘Dear Mr Lyward, (Mrs Wilton replied),
‘Dear Mrs Wilton,’ (replied Mr Lyward),
I had gone mad and was rushing wildly around at home. I saw my mother and slapped her face. She didn’t seem to mind, and then she and Mr Lyward told me to try and be quiet and put me to bed in the nursery.
It was now May, 1939. War was approaching, and Mrs Wilton wanted Alastair home. Her suggestions that he should leave Finchden became more insistent. But he did not want to go home and she was bitterly disappointed. Mr Lyward reassured her.
‘Dear Mrs Wilton,
‘… And may I be allowed to help you by warning you against feeling bitter at Alastair’s attitude? There is no occasion for that. When we feel bitter about such attitudes of adolescents, as are universal, we are merely in the grip of unacknowledged self-pity, which is looking for justification. It is hard sometimes to rejoice at the sight of the next generation really growing up, but at least we must not accuse them of a heartlessness which is not theirs.’
Mr Lyward did not think Alastair ready to leave Finchden. After explaining that the confusion in the boy’s mind was not yet clear, he added an important paragraph: ‘I hold that he would not have any serious difficulty in reaching an average public school academic standard in about a third of the usual time. Many boys by bringing their emotional troubles to their schoolwork create the difficulties which schoolmasters wrongly think of as residing (for those boys) in the subjects they study.
These words summarize one of the principal aims and achievements of Mr Lyward’s work. Many boys, before this letter and since, once cleared of their emotional trouble, settled down happily to work and passed examinations in which they had previously failed. Another paragraph from a contemporary letter to the boy’s trustee may here be quoted:
‘About two years ago,’ Mr Lyward wrote, ‘two parents
of prospective members of this community visited us in the same month
or so. The first was a mother who had been sent by her husband to ask
me to reduce my fees. In the course of conversation she suddenly said:
“It has been a difficult year, you see, we have had to sell some
of the hunters.” The other was the wife of a merchant service
captain who had just agreed to the reduction of his salary from £800
to £400 in order to keep his job. She said: “I will get
rid of the house and live in rooms so that the boy can come to you.”
August came. A crisis had arrived in Alastair’s development. He felt ready to go home, but for the moment Mr Lyward refused permission. ‘I sympathize with you utterly,’ he wrote to Mrs Wilton, ‘in your desire to have Alastair home. But I feel that I must now speak in no uncertain way. He has once again reached the point where I can treat him firmly and say, “You have just got to accept authority without question and without modifying everything to suit yourself.” If this phase is now broken into, I shall probably have to do it over again. … You have shown understanding, but I cannot refrain from telling you that there is always just that extra something that has to be surrendered. The something about which one says, “Not that, please!!” …’
At the same time, while on holiday, Mr Lyward sent Alastair a note, saying: ‘… I am so anxious that you should take advantage of this chance I have given you of accepting the decision of “somebody in authority” without question. In ordinary language, even if you don’t like something, can you lump it cheerfully? This means a great deal to you. Please have a go at seeing what it’s all about.’
War was declared and at the beginning of October Alastair went home for three weeks. ‘I want to tell you,’ wrote Mrs Wilton, ‘how lovely these weeks have been. He was so bright and considerate, and it did one good just to feel he was around …’ But, ‘there is still a little pang of jealousy, and I somehow feel I am just his little mother, whom he loves in a sweet protective way. I suppose I have lost for ever the power to be a friend on an equal footing …’
‘Dear Mrs Wilton,’ (Mr Lyward answered),
Alastair continued to dream about girls, of being carried out to sea, about his mother and his sister. In one dream he slapped his sister’s face and told her exactly what he thought of her. He dreamed that an old boy returned to Finchden and said that Alastair had become more masculine, ‘and I burst into tears …’ he dreamed he had grown a beard.
In June 1940 he went home again. His mother and sister, expecting him to return to Finchden at the end of the holiday, went away for a visit, leaving him alone. He rang up Finchden. Mr Lyward was away. Alastair wanted to know whether it would be all right for him to take a job as a mechanic. ‘I suggested’, noted the assistant who took the call, ‘that he should write to Mr Lyward, and I said there would be no harm in making some enquiries. I also advised him not to commit himself to anything until he had either heard from Mr Lyward or had had a talk with him.’
Thus began the last stage of Alastair’s accoutrement for life, and perhaps the most interesting, since it was during this last stage, as with many other boys, that Mr Lyward had his hardest struggle with the parent concerning the real nature of his work. His own attitude was all the more difficult to vindicate, because the boy of his own accord now wanted to leave. The parents’ opposition to Finchden had evaporated. They acknowledged what Mt Lyward had done, and were grateful. It therefore seemed obvious that the time had come for Mr Lyward, his part played, to withdraw and leave the boy to choose his own path in the world. Against these solid arguments Mr Lyward had nothing but his own vision and diagnosis of the boy. As at the beginning, so at the end, he asked another ‘act of faith’. Mrs Wilton was naturally delighted when she heard of Alastair’s project to go to work.
‘Dear Mr Lyward,
A week later Mr Lyward met Alastair in London, and wrote his account of the interview briefly in a report. ‘I would have agreed to his going to work but for the quite obvious proofs he gave that he was not quite ready. It was three minutes after his statement “I intend to go whatever you say” that he suddenly said, “I am coming back with you”. It is the old business of accepting and therefore developing within himself, “the father principle” without which he seeks life always as an “escape back to mothering”.
Mr Lyward described the meeting at greater length in a letter to a doctor. Since it is of the highest importance in understanding Finchden manor, and perhaps of interest to all who care to examine whether they have confronted life with fear or freedom, I give the relevant passages in full.
‘ … I went to London to see Alastair after he had telephoned that he wasn’t returning. I would have willingly agreed to his trying himself out but the fact that he very soon revealed over lunch that he was not so much going out to a new adventure, as running from the final acceptance of that one element in life here which will clear him for life of the futility of rebellion.
It is extraordinary, even to us here, how he clings to the “right” to run his own life and be supported whenever things go wrong. His most revealing statement to me that day in London was: “Well, I thought if I went off – (i.e. left Finchden while nominally on a holiday) – and things didn’t go right, you would out of your infinite kindness have me back.” I do hope you will see what I saw in that. He is not quite free of what I called to him the “mother-child principle”, which is equivalent to “whatever I do Mummy will be there”, and is not yet strengthened by the “father-child principle”, rooted in him. This latter is equivalent to “I am prepared to go and take the risks”.
For quite a long time he hasn’t been far off the change from the former to the latter. But the final inner change is evidently very hard for him to achieve. The difference, however, between having achieved it before leaving with the statement “Aren’t I clever – so long as I’m secretly held up from behind”, is enormous. … I had already said to him over lunch in London, “Well, Alastair, I don’t advise you to go on a runaway from Finchden basis, but I shan’t stop you.” So far as I knew, he was going, when he suddenly came to himself and said – “I will come back with you”’.
The process of ‘clearing’ reached a climax four months later. Finchden had moved into Shropshire. Alastair had been with Mr Lyward over four years. Mrs Wilton, who had not heard from Mr Lyward since the meeting in London, wrote on Alastair’s nineteenth birthday, ‘You have effected such great and good changes in Alastair, that one does hope, despite possible weaknesses, which he must recognize and learn to guard against, and which even your teaching cannot wholly eradicate, that he is by now able and fitted to do something on his own. I have no doubt if it were not for this ghastly war, you would have advised Alastair to leave before.’ She added that she had saved some petrol, and suggested coming to Shropshire for the weekend. Mr Lyward and Alastair both answered that she would be welcome.
She arrived, looking forward to the long country drive, and to seeing him, and bringing his sister with her. The pleasant weekend became a crisis. Alastair had two rows, first with Mr Lyward in the streets of Ludlow, the second with his mother in a hotel, where he accused her of running his life, and behaved worse than ever before. She drove straight home and after resting for some days wrote to Mr Lyward. At the beginning of her letter she put two quotations: ‘Holiness is an infinite compassion for others’, ‘Happiness is a great love and much service’.
‘These are glorious truths,’ she wrote, ‘and I believed that your psychology was bring Alastair towards them. I felt a great trust and a great hope. I am very bitterly sorry that that sad visit has destroyed my trust. I cannot see that your explanation that he was suffering from the painful shock of discovering his utter lack of independence, could account for the return of symptoms of which there has been no sign for so long. I find it difficult to reconcile your statement that, after the scene you had described you had with Alastair in Ludlow, better relations than ever had been established between you. Neither Alastair nor I have written to each other. I don’t suppose he has been hoping I would, as much as I had been hoping he would.’
Mr Lyward answered:
The real irony is that you tend to hold me responsible for the time it all takes, even after you have admitted that none of you was able to be co-operative for so long a period after Alastair came to us. I know you have looked to yourself and the part you have played in the past. You will remember, as I vividly remember, about the time long ago now, when I told you to take Alastair away. Must I say that again now? And if I do will you say that it is a threat? Or will you realize that there must be a limit to the number of times I tell you what is in my power to do and what is not?
Eleven years of this work have provided me with enough evidence: (1) that I know what I am doing, (2) that I do it as fast as I can, (3) that there is no way of explaining to parents, who are trying to avoid the suffering of realizing the part they have played in the past, and the suffering connected with revising their values …’ Mrs Wilton did not write to Mr Lyward again for over two months, during which time she had several cheerful letters from Alastair. When she did write to Mr Lyward, it was to raise one final doubt – a doubt naturally in the minds of many parents in regard to any person whose position or character had given him influence over their sons.
‘There are one or two aspects which disturb me, and the first is Alastair’s intense dependence on yourself. It has taken me a long time to realize how dependent he was at one time, on me; and now how really dependent he is on you. Unless your teaching is going to develop Alastair himself and what there is of real individuality in him, you will surely have failed. His humour seems to me his truest self, and that he has always had. But his opinions, his very phraseology are echoes of yourself. I don’t say its not an interesting and agreeable self, but one feels too strongly that he feels so safe in being your reflection, that in giving in to your wishes and plans for him he is seeking refuge and shelter from an unpleasant world. That is surely not what you wish for him ultimately. Most people urge that the longer he stays with you, the more dependent he will become. If it were true, it would be very wrong for him to stay longer. Most of my friends beg me to urge Alastair to leave; but as they have not the advantage of knowing yourself, nor did they know, except in very few cases, what Alastair was like, their opinions cannot be wholly convincing. Two people only, whom I respect highly, have advised me still not to cut short the progress which seems to have set in again since Christmas …’
Mr Lyward replied:
About two months later,
The rest of the story is briefly told. For several months Alastair worked in a small factory not many miles from Mr Lyward. It worried him that he should have been exempted from military service. He thought of having himself ‘re-boarded’ but the original exemption was confirmed. It was some while before he could bear to spend much time with his mother; his resentment against her was still strong. Yet he moved north, though not right into Scotland. After some time he had saved enough to rent a garage. He married happily and had a child. His mother, far from being jealous, was delighted with his wife and the ‘harmony of real love’ for which she had hoped began to be restored.
Alastair worked hard. He had very little money, but made enough to buy his garage. In every sense he could now stand on his own feet. Such troubles as came his way he could now cope with by himself. He wrote to Mr Lyward every few months, and later paid Finchden a visit now and then. Sometimes he asked for advice, but the ‘echo’ had disappeared and he spoke in his own voice. He was elected to local councils and held a number of responsible positions. Amusing traces of hauteur remained, but he could laugh at himself and let others laugh at him. He had gained loyalty and depth, and developed the ‘wide culture’, of which Mrs Wilton had once spoken as coming from Mr Lyward and Mr Knox, although he no longer painted. (The canvases with which he had arrived at Finchden were never mentioned again and are still there.) Above all, the self-pity had vanished.
Except for one more letter, Mrs Wilton’s correspondence with Mr Lyward ceased in 1951. Finchden Manor celebrated its twenty-first anniversary in London. The Fortune Theatre was taken over and the boys acted a play, which Fitzy had produced. The audience consisted almost entirely of parents, doctors, social workers, teachers, probation officers, old boys who had come to pay their tribute to Mr Lyward. Ten representatives of a County Council arrived to see one of their most difficult boys act, and four girls hired a taxi from Tenterden. Mr Lyward spoke from the stage after the play, Mrs Lyward spoke, the staff took their curtains, and one of the theatre attendants, who had never heard of Finchden before, burst into tears. Among the audience was Mrs Wilton.
That was the last time Mr Lyward saw her. In the same year she died. From things she said during her last illness Alastair believed that her friendship with Mr Lyward had given her a strength which enabled her to face death in peace. He afterwards found among her papers, and returned to Finchden, the two verse plays which Mr Lyward had sent her after her visit fifteen years before. She had meant to post them back, but had kept them. A letter – one small sheet – written in 1946 had been attached to thank him for the plays ‘… you lent me, to help me in the unhappy days, which thanks to your goodness are over and passed. Alastair is a great joy to me now. Both my children are married, and when I am sometimes rather lonely and self-pitying, I summon to my help the help you opened my eyes to see. I am very well and happy. All my best wishes to you and yours, and your wonderful work …’